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Context of 'June 23, 2009: CIA Director Informed of Assassination and Capture Program, Immediately Cancels It'

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The CIA begins a program to kill or capture al-Qaeda leaders using small teams of its paramilitary forces. [New York Times, 7/14/2009; Washington Post, 8/20/2009] The aim is to take out of circulation members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates who are judged to be plotting attacks against US forces or interests. The program’s establishment follows its proposal by an official at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (see Shortly After September 11, 2001) and official approval from the White House (see September 17, 2001). The program, initially run by the Counterterrorist Center, never becomes operational at the agency and no targets are ever proposed for the White House’s approval; although the CIA will both capture and kill several al-Qaeda leaders over the next few years (see, for example, February 29 or March 1, 2003 and December 1, 2005), these successes result from ad hoc operations or other programs. However, the Pentagon will later begin a parallel program that does kill and capture al-Qaeda leaders (see July 22, 2002). Although the CIA’s program is never used, it is, according to CIA spokesman George Little, “much more than a PowerPoint presentation.” [New York Times, 7/14/2009; Washington Post, 8/20/2009] Another official adds: “It’s wrong to think this counterterrorism program was confined to briefing slides or doodles on a cafeteria napkin. It went well beyond that.” [New York Times, 8/20/2009] Top CIA officials are briefed periodically about the program’s progress. [New York Times, 7/14/2009] The program is intended for use in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other countries. [New York Times, 7/14/2009; Washington Post, 8/20/2009] Reasons for its non-use include logistical, legal, and diplomatic hurdles. [New York Times, 8/20/2009] There are three versions of the program: an initial one done in house, another one operated by the private military contractor Blackwater (see 2004), and another, possibly after Blackwater leaves the program (see (2005-2006)). The total spending on the program is under $20 million over eight years. [Washington Post, 8/20/2009] There is a US government ban on assassinating people. However, the Bush administration takes the position that killing members of al-Qaeda, a terrorist group that attacked the US and has pledged to attack it again, is no different from killing enemy soldiers in battle, so the CIA is not constrained by the ban. [New York Times, 7/14/2009; New York Times, 8/20/2009]

Entity Tags: George Little, Central Intelligence Agency, Counterterrorist Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties, War in Afghanistan

Blackwater stops work on a CIA program to assassinate and capture al-Qaeda leaders. Blackwater had been hired by the agency to work on the program at some time in 2004 (see 2004). However, according to the New York Times, its involvement ends “years before” Leon Panetta becomes CIA director in 2009 (see June 23, 2009). The reason for the termination is that CIA officials begin to question the wisdom of using outsiders in a targeted killing program. [New York Times, 8/20/2009]

Entity Tags: Blackwater USA, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties, War in Afghanistan

CIA Director Michael Hayden and his top aides are told about one aspect of an agency program to capture and assassinate al-Qaeda leaders. The program was proposed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and has been under development at the agency for years, although it has not yet become operational (see Shortly After September 17, 2001). Details of what Hayden is told are unclear, although he is told about plans that involve gathering sensitive information in a foreign country. Hayden orders that the operation be scaled back and that Congress be notified if the plans become more fully developed. However, Congress is not informed before Hayden’s successor cancels the program (see June 23, 2009). [New York Times, 7/14/2009]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA Director Leon Panetta is informed by the agency’s Counterterrorist Center that it has a program to assassinate or capture al-Qaeda leaders. The program was established shortly after 9/11, but has never become operational (see Shortly After September 17, 2001). Panetta immediately cancels the program. [New York Times, 7/14/2009] CIA spokesman George Little says the decision was “clear and straightforward,” as Panetta “knew it [the program] hadn’t been successful.” [Washington Post, 8/20/2009] There is no resistance inside the CIA to this decision, apparently because the program is not fully operational and has not yet been briefed to Congress. [New York Times, 7/12/2009]
CIA Was Reviewing Program - It is unclear why Panetta is informed of the program at this time. However, the Counterterrorist Center has recently conducted a review of it, so he may learn of its existence due to the review, which will be presented to the White House and the Congressional intelligence committees. [New York Times, 8/20/2009]
Why Was Panetta Not Told Before? - It is also unclear why Panetta, who was confirmed as CIA director four months ago, was not told of the program earlier. One explanation is that it is because the program was not operational. “It’s a capability that wasn’t being used, so it wasn’t a front-burner issue,” says one unnamed official. Another retired official familiar with the program’s details says, “It would have been a big deal if it was operational, but since it was not, it’s not a big deal.” However, several former CIA officers and intelligence experts find this explanation unconvincing. According to Time magazine, “For one thing, they say, the mere fact that the program apparently merited [former Vice President Dick] Cheney’s close attention should have been a red flag.” A former operations expert says, “Even if the program was dormant, the top officials would have known about Cheney’s instructions, and they should have told Panetta right away.” Another retired senior official puts it more bluntly, saying, “[Given Cheney’s interest,] I don’t know why the program was not on the new director’s desk within his first two weeks on the job.” He adds, “The speed of Panetta’s actions when he was informed tells me that the program was pretty important.” Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center, comments, “In retrospect, the [Cheney] angle ought to be sufficient grounds for someone to think, this does deserve the boss’s attention.” [New York Times, 7/14/2009]

Entity Tags: Leon Panetta, Central Intelligence Agency, Counterterrorist Center, Paul R. Pillar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties, War in Afghanistan

At an emergency meeting, CIA Director Leon Panetta tells the House and Senate intelligence committees of a CIA program to assassinate and capture al-Qaeda leaders (see Shortly After September 17, 2001). [New York Times, 7/14/2009; Washington Post, 8/20/2009; New York Times, 8/20/2009] Panetta learned of the program the previous day and immediately canceled it (see June 23, 2009). The lawmakers had not previously received information about the program, apparently at the direction of former Vice President Dick Cheney (see 2002). Panetta says he thinks the lawmakers should have been told earlier, because the program had moved beyond the planning stage and therefore deserved Congressional scrutiny. [Washington Post, 8/20/2009; New York Times, 8/20/2009]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Senate Intelligence Committee, House Intelligence Committee, Leon Panetta

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

The House Intelligence Committee launches an investigation into whether the CIA broke the law by failing to notify Congress about an agency program to assassinate and capture al-Qaeda leaders. The program was initiated shortly after 9/11 (see Shortly After September 17, 2001), but Congress was not notified of it, apparently at the instruction of former Vice President Dick Cheney (see 2002), until it was shut down in July 2009 (see June 23, 2009 and June 24, 2009). [Washington Post, 8/20/2009; New York Times, 8/20/2009] Congressional Democrats are furious that the program was not shared with the House Committee and with its Senate counterpart. However, some Congressional Republicans say that as Congress had already approved broad authorities for the CIA after 9/11, the CIA was not required to brief lawmakers on specifics about the program, which never became operational. [New York Times, 7/12/2009; New York Times, 7/14/2009]

Entity Tags: House Intelligence Committee, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

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